NASSAU — The death toll from Hurricane Dorian reached 20 in the Bahamas on Wednesday as rescue teams raced the clock to provide food, water, medicine and shelter to thousands left homeless by the storm.
The sun shone brightly over the beleaguered archipelago, revealing the overwhelming destruction across Grand Bahama and Abaco islands after the storm rolled in Sunday as a Category 5 hurricane and lingered for days.
Entire communities were flattened and roads washed out. Hospitals and airports were swamped by several feet of water. The government urged residents stuck in their homes to cut holes in the ceilings in case water rushed in and trapped families awaiting rescue.
Clarence Ingram, the Salvation Army's division commander in the Bahamas, said relief efforts are hamstrung by flooded airports and swamped roads on the two most severely ravaged islands, home to about 70,000 Bahamians. About 60,000 of them need help immediately, he said.
"This is dire," Ingram told USA TODAY. "And relief efforts providing for basic human needs such as food and water will probably go on for several months."
Ingram's team was putting together meals for shelters as best they could. He said they have a large supply of food and materials in Florida awaiting transport to Grand Bahama, a challenging hurdle given the destruction.
"The airport is under water," he said. "The storm surge overwhelmed everything. Water is just everywhere."
In Nassau, the island nation’s capital, there were few signs of Dorian’s wrath, despite the storm’s passage just a few days earlier and less than 100 miles away. Occasional puddles and piles of muddy sand, along with some sandbags stacked on store doorways, hinted at the passing fury.
Many relief agencies, including the Red Cross and Team Rubicon, are still assessing the damage. Runways on Abaco were flooded and covered with debris and authorities weren’t sure when they might be clear to land planes.
Team Rubicon landed a three-person team on Abaco to assess needs, and expected to deploy a self-contained medical team within days.
“We're planning on launching a larger-scale response operation over the next few days,” Team Rubicon spokesman DJ Sprenger said via email.
Chef Jose Andres, who helped found the World Central Kitchen, tweeted that volunteers had already delivered thousands of meals to Abaco via helicopter, making at least three trips from Nassau on Wednesday. Andres has also chartered a ship to ferry in supplies from Florida, using an amphibious vehicle to land on the island’s beaches.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said the death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers approached the hardest hit areas. First responders including the Royal Bahamas Defense Force were aided by the U.S. Coast Guard, Britain's Royal Navy and locals on fishing boats and jet skis.
"We are seeing bravery and fortitude of Bahamians who endured hours and days of horror," Minnis said. "Our urgent task will be to provide food, water, shelter and safety and security."
Dorian drove sustained winds of 185 mph when it slammed into the island chain Sunday, the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the Atlantic basin since 1935. The storm made landfall three times that day, then stalled, pounding the islands and hampering rescue efforts.
Early reports said 13,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, but the final tally is expected to be much higher.
“It’s total devastation. It’s decimated. Apocalyptic,” said Lia Head-Rigby, who helps run a local hurricane relief group and flew over Abaco island. “It’s not rebuilding something that was there; we have to start again.”
The U.S. Coast Guard said it was providing assistance with air operations based out of Andros Island, Bahamas. The U.S. Coast Guard was also providing multiple cutters and 17 shallow-water rescue boat teams.
“We don’t want people thinking we’ve forgotten them," said Tammy Mitchell, with the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency. "We know what your conditions are."Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Dorian update: Massive Bahamas rescue effort underway